Retrospective of 20 years of international cooperation with Fabienne Richard – GAMS Belgium
The holidays are coming to an end. So at GAMS Belgium, we wanted to continue taking you on a journey through time and space. Let’s start with this photo from our boxes which perfectly illustrates this article. It shows Fabienne Richard and Khadidiatou Diallo in Cairo, in 2009, at the general assembly of the Inter African Committee (CIAF). For some time now, our director and founder have been travelling the world aiming to abolish female genital mutilation. In Senegal, Guinea, Portugal and Canada, our association has participated in and contributed to several initiatives outside our borders over the past 20 years. Ready to learn more about our international cooperation and collaboration projects? It’s time to take stock with Fabienne Richard.
In 2012, GAMS Belgium carried out its first international project in Vélingara, Senegal. How did it start and why did GAMS Belgium get involved in this type of project?
It started very small in the region where Khadidiatou Diallo, the founder of GAMS Belgium, was born: in Vélingara and in Linkering, in Casamance, in the South of Senegal. It was very important to her to work in this region because the rate of female circumcision is very high.
Female empowerment in Senegal
We started with micro-credit projects where women could choose between several activities such as gardening, soap making or grinding mills. The idea behind this was to propose income-generating activities, and literacy classes with the aim of emancipation, empowerment, and to abandon FGM.
Exchanges between communities
As years went by and the budgets became more and more staggering, we moved on to raising awareness through theatre. We also carried out a video letter project. The Peul community in Brussels could exchange and respond by video with the Peul community in the villages of Casamance. It was interesting to see how the diaspora living in Belgium was able to change its mentality by attending GAMS. Women who had not been sexually abused could influence women in Vélingara and we could see how the communities back at home were making progress.
The Pact for Education
Based on a project that had worked well in Ethiopia in the Afar community, we transposed the same approach to Casamance through a pact with the parents: the pact for education so that girls could go to school at least until they are 18 years old and to protect them from excision and forced marriage. This experience allowed us to see that implementing a project in one country does not work in the same way in another. In Senegal, the start-up was slower. The follow-up mission will allow us to evaluate the progress and see if we continue or if we adopt another approach.
Training of professionals
Last year we started training midwives and teachers. We went on a mission in September where we were able to train the staff of the Vélingara health district and teachers, with whom we had very interesting discussions. We hope to repeat this training in Kolda in October and November 2022.
Since July 2021, GAMS has also carried out two missions in Guinea. Can you tell us more?
Until recently, the international projects were initiated by GAMS. At the end of 2020, the German cooperation came looking for us for a mission in Guinea. Health Focus, a consultancy that implements projects of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenheit (Giz) contacted us. As 60% of the people who attend GAMS Belgium are from Guinea, it made sense for us to work there. The challenge is that for 30 years already, there have been projects trying to abandon excision and the prevalence rate is still 95%. There is no progress and everyone is wondering how to go about it.
Co-construction of Action Research in Guinea: a new adventure
We had the idea of applying the same community-based approach that we use in Belgium, a gender-transformative approach to start from the bottom and deconstruct gender stereotypes. At GAMS, we think everything is linked to inequalities between men and women and that from a very young age, we are expected to act in a certain way depending on whether we are a boy or a girl, and this follows us throughout our lives. We used tools we offer in Belgium with migrant communities: photo imagery and role play. We built the modules together with a participatory approach. Action research works in cycles, i.e. we do a first cycle, we observe and evaluate and the next time we take action, we improve on the basis of the evaluations.
We did a first mission in Mamou in July 2021 and it went very well. I came with ideas but was also very open to proposals. In the beginning, I had planned five sessions, and a sixth session was set up live during the training of facilitators. This was very well received by GIZ and the European Union, who wanted to repeat the experience in another location, this time in Guinée-Forestière. GAMS Belgium was therefore asked to return in July 2022 to two places, in the rural community and in the urban community of N’Zérékoré. We wanted to see with people who were illiterate whether the chosen approach worked. In Mamou, the participants’ level of education was higher than the national average. I went back to train 16 facilitators and the Guinean NGO AFASCO, who we worked with in Mamou, will be in charge of implementation again. We will monitor them every 15 days online and I will return in December 2022 for feedback at local and national level. I will help the teams to analyse everything that was collected during the 7 sessions. We have added a 7th session after the Mamou evaluation. This is the principle of action research: to improve with each new cycle.
Who are the participants in the action research group? How are they selected?
We work with both men and women. We have four groups: girls, young men, married women, married men. This allows us to see the similarities and differences. They are people from the community who participate on a voluntary basis, they have been recommended by the local leaders. We wanted to recruit people who could form a diverse group. There were also age criteria, with or without schooling. The aim was really to have diversity.
What are the themes addressed?
We deal with sex and gender related issues, how we socialise, sexual and reproductive rights, gender-based violence, how we deal with our emotions, etc.
It was the men who came up with the idea of doing a whole session on managing emotions because one of them had the courage to share with the group: “one day I hit my wife and I felt very bad afterwards and I would like to know how to avoid that. What can I do when I feel my anger rising and how can I find other methods to avoid physical force?” We did a whole session dedicated to anger management and it was very interesting. We had three-hour sessions using participatory methods.
This is the third mission to Guinea and there is a fourth mission being prepared. Does GAMS have ambitions to go on missions to other countries?
Not at the moment; we would first like to establish more links with Enabel (the Belgian cooperation). We have expertise and we work with people from different diasporas who have things to say. Knowing Enabel works in Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, Guinea and many other countries where FGM is common practice on a large scale, we think it’s a shame that the German cooperation recognises our expertise and not the Belgian one not yet. In Guinea we have had very good contacts with the Belgian cooperation. We had to be on the spot to create this connection. The next step would be to meet the director of Enabel, here in Belgium.
GAMS has expertise that influences associations in Quebec. What kind of exchanges are being developed?
It’s true that when we talk about international cooperation, we think of countries in the South, but in reality it’s the whole world. And for the past three years, thanks to WBI (Wallonie-Bruxelles International), we have obtained an exchange fund that allows us to pay for visits to exchange good practices between Quebec and Wallonia-Brussels.
Training professionals and exchanges in Quebec
We had a first agreement with the University of Montreal which allowed us to exchange our good practices. I was able to give training to midwives and gynaecologists at the Sainte-Justine hospital in Montreal. We also met with organisations, the Réseau d’action pour l’égalité des femmes immigrées et racisées du Québec (Rafiq). This year, we signed a collaboration agreement with Magaly Pirotte of Sex Ed+ (Home – SEX-ED + (positivesexed.org). She had been making vulva and male sex moulds for educational purposes for professionals, sexologists, gynaecologists or anyone who provides sex education in schools for several years.
Moulding excised vulvas soon in Brussels
We’re planning to make moulds of vulvas of excised women in partnership with CeMAViE, the Medical Centre for Victims of Excision at the CHU Saint Pierre, and this will take place at the end of September. All going well, we’ll be in Montreal to meet with associations in May 2023.
This project will be carried out at GAMS with women Cendrine Vanderhoeven – sexologist at CeMAVie – saw in consultations explaining the whole approach and who then gave their consent. The women are generally happy knowing this project will help prevent excision and provide better care, as it is aimed at improved training for midwives and gynaecologists. Magaly will come from Quebec with all her equipment to make the moulds. On our side, we will make sure to prepare the women so that this project happens in the most natural and welcoming way possible.
“I think it’s crazy that we are not recognised at a national level when we are at an international level.”
And at European level?
We are part of the European End FGM network, of which we are co-founders. We have several guidelines, documents and tools that have been translated and adapted to other contexts of member states. We were also very moved to see that the Associação para o planeamento da familia (APF) used our prevention kit and adapted it to the Portuguese context. The Portuguese kit has the GAMS logo with the words “based on an original idea by GAMS”, which is great. I would like to give a thumbs up for Sonia from the APF. In Switzerland, we also have documents on the risk scale that have been translated into German. We are delighted that the work of GAMS serves as an example for other countries.
Sometimes we think it’s crazy that we still have to fight for structural funding to maintain our teams, while we receive praise from all over Europe for everything we do. I think it’s crazy that we are not yet recognised at national level while we are recognised at international level.
Also in the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg
Five years ago I received three calls in the same week from Caritas Luxembourg, the Red Cross in Luxemburg and OLAI, which since then became ONA (Office National de l’Accueil) – the equivalent of Fedasil in Belgium. Hundreds of Eritrean women had just arrived in Luxemburg and no one was trained or prepared to deal with the issue of FGM. We intervene several times a year by giving training to the teams at shelter homes (reception centres for international asylum seekers). We are going back on September 7th to train doctors this time, because it is important. Once we have identified girls and women suffering from FGM complications, we want to be able to refer them to trained medical services. We are thinking of creating a GAMS branch in the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg or otherwise we’ll work with a local organisation.
What would you like to see in the area of cooperation?
I would like more colleagues to be able to live this international experience to go meet other organisations in order to promote the work of GAMS and enrich their expertise.
Written by Leïla EL-MAHI